Guest post by Alan Elliott
San Francisco Bay Area native Alan Elliott is taking time out from his master’s degree studies at the University of California San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies to pursue a 10-week internship in ChildFund’s Sri Lanka office. He is regularly blogging about his experiences.
I’ve just returned from Tangalle, my first visit to a zone affected by the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I interviewed children and youth who were so traumatically affected by this disaster that they still struggle seven years later. One youth I met, Sanath, inspired me on a personal level. Not only did he give himself a new lease on life, but he also has become a leader in his community. He is proof that progress by the individual and by the community provides a recipe for sustainable development and positive change.
“Before 2004, the community was normal, united,” 25-year-old Sanath explains, “but after the tsunami hit, everything fell apart and many youths became addicted to very ugly things.”
Sanath’s rural community was devastated by the tsunami that swept Sri Lanka’s eastern and southern coasts. Although ChildFund was quickly on the scene to provide emergency relief in the form of nutritional foods, infrastructure support and child protection, physical aid alone is but one component of disaster recovery.
After the tsunami, ChildFund identified drug and alcohol addiction as a big problem in Tangalle, especially in Kudawella. Many youth felt lost, with no skills, no goals and a lack of involvement in a community broken by disaster. Sanath was one who developed a paralyzing addiction to alcohol.
Children and youth needed more support so they could rediscover a sense of community and develop practical skills for employment. Working with the local parent federation Ruhunu Wellassa, ChildFund started children’s and youth clubs. At those club meetings, children ages 5-14 and youth from 15-24 come together to socialize, learn and develop job and leadership skills. Through these clubs, ChildFund prepares young people to become the primary agents of change in their communities.
At first, Sanath, who was 19 at the time, was “afraid to join” the Youth Club in Kudawella. He was unsure of what the club intended to do, and he lacked the self-confidence to participate. But in 2005 he overcame his fear and began rebuilding his own life. Leadership training, which offers confidence-building and teamwork exercises, helped Sanath become an effective organizer among his peers. He made such progress that he won election as chairman of the Youth Club in 2008-2009.
Additional career guidance and personal development programs also helped Sanath identify a career that was well-suited for him. He even received support in learning to drive and obtaining a driver’s license.
“The Youth Club helped me to discover my talents and what options were available to me” Sanath says. For the past two and a half years, he has been working for an insurance company, earning a good salary, and nurturing ambitions to become a manager.
Most important for Sanath is his personal recovery and the positive steps he and other youth are taking to help the community. “After joining the Youth Club, I have become freer of mind, and my community has regained the unity that it had before the tsunami.”